Inviting Your Input

Beavers are nature’s collaborators.  We don’t do anything alone.  I’m working with MIT’s new Humanist Chaplain, Greg Epstein, and the Humanist Hub to plan an MIT Community Holiday Celebration scheduled for Thursday evening December 13.  This date is right between the end of classes and exam week.

MIT students and community: we need your input and participation.  There are brainstorming meetings planned for the at 4pm in the Chapel on Thursday October 18 and in the Student Center first floor meeting room on Thursday October 25.

We are planning a secular celebration with uplifting songs, heart-opening readings, and intriguing stories about the mighty beaver.  We want to decorate the Chapel to bring out its coziness and uncanny resemblance to the inside of the beaver lodge, and to make the lamp posts and trees outside look a bit magical.  Of course we’re thinking about food afterwards in W11.  Something festive.  Certainly including cake.

There’s plenty of room for everyone’s creativity in bringing this idea to life.  Please let me hear from you about any interest in participating in the planning and/or hosting the event.

Back in the Jurassic Period, I was the Princeton Tigress.  That’s me, leading the parade down to the football stadium.  Remembering those days reminds me of what I love most about MIT: the collaboration.

-–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

The $weet Life

MIT Humanist Discussion Group meets Thursday at 4:30 in the Chapel, W15

This week’s topic: The $weet Life (with MIT Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein and Chaplaincy Intern Nina Lytton)

Cutthroat competition without (you fill in the blank) soon becomes bloody battle that leaves us emotionally, physically, ethically, and socially barren.

5-minute read: How to Reimagine the World for Eudaimonia by Umair Haque


–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

Money Talks, Humanity Walks?

Who are we as humans, and how do we measure our worth? Can we talk about money, and all it signifies?  Let’s start the discussion with Lauren Greenfield’s documentary Generation Wealth.

Greenfield began her career as a photojournalist by documenting LA teenagers’ romance with wealth. Decades later, she returned to assess how those teens, now at midlife, were influenced by the culture of materialism that Hollywood spreads around the world.

Check out the trailer:

Greenfield noticed that no matter how much money people had, they still wanted more.  In LA and all around the world, she documents how money, celebrity, bling and narcissism are pursued obsessively—and without satisfaction.

Where are you in all of this?  How does the culture of Generation Wealth show up in your life at MIT?  Join us Thursday at 4pm in the Chapel to discuss.

For more information:

Greenfield makes the point that Generation Wealth is the culture that made Trump possible.

Why has our society “come to embrace the hollow values of excess and celebrity over more traditional values of hard work, discipline and simple human connection?”  Reviewer Sharon Waxman lifts up Greenfield’s college-aged son’s take on the damage done by obsessing on wealth.

Generation Wealth exposes the fallacies of marketplace feminism.  Eileen G’Sell lays it down in Salon: “In an age of excess, it’s women who lose.”

“Is enough ever enough, or is it fundamentally unAmerican to believe that someone can have too much money?” Reviewer David Ehrlich concludes that “happiness is something we must all define for ourselves.”

–Nina Lytton, Humanist Chaplaincy Intern

Press Release: Humanist Hub Announces Humanist of the Year Recipient

Some initial great press for our award in Democracy Journal. Stay tuned for more!


BOSTON, Oct. 1, 2018— The Humanist Hub is honored to announce Nick Hanauer as its Harvard and MIT Humanist of the Year. This award honors individuals whose life and contributions to society exemplify the values of humanism: compassion, integrity, creativity, and honesty, among others.

Humanist Hub executive director Greg Epstein, who also serves as Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT, presented the award to Hanauer during a public forum on Sept. 30 at MIT. During the forum, titled “Capitalism Redefined: The Ethics of Wealth in a World of Rising Inequality,” American academics, artists, and philosophers discussed how communities can fix the glaring inequities in our economy.

“It turns out that most people get capitalism wrong. Capitalism works best when it works for everyone, not just the exceptionally wealthy,“ said Hanauer. “Receiving the Humanist of the Year award is an honor, and I’m enthusiastic about joining the Humanist Hub in guiding conversations about our economy and the growing wealth gap.”

Hanauer is most well-known for being a philanthropist and Seattle-based venture capitalist. An early investor in Amazon and the successful founder or funder of multiple businesses, Hanauer is a critic of rising economic inequality. He is respected in the Humanist community for his books and articles, including national bestsellers “The True Patriot” and “The Garden of Democracy.”

“Humanism requires us to apply critical thinking and compassion to the work of creating economies that influence the lives of billions of human beings. We need influential capitalists to speak truth to their powerful peers because things have gone awry, and we need to rededicate ourselves to justice,” said Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein. “Nick has worked tirelessly to use his wealth and influence for the greater good. He serves as a healthy example of success for students who hope to gain influence through tech and business.”

Past Humanist of the Year laureates include filmmaker Seth MacFarland (creator of Family Guy), documentary filmmaker Ann Druyan (creator of the PBS documentary series “Cosmos”), human rights heroes General Romeo Dallaire and Taslima Nasreen, as well as world-renowned scientists Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson.

About Humanist Hub

Founded in 1974, the Humanist Hub is an independent 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to creating an inclusive community for the religiously unaffiliated. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Drawing on the structures and best practices of religious communities, the Humanist Hub works to create a new model for how humanists celebrate life, promote reason and compassion, and a better world for all. To get involved, please visit


Media Contact:

Ashley Nakano
Sterling Communications, Inc.

Our Last Event at 30 JFK

Dear Humanist Hub Members, Supports and Friends:

This past fall, our community talked in various ways about going through a time of transition, including uncertainty about whether we would renew our lease. It is now time to inform our broader community that a decision has been reached: we will be leaving 30 JFK Street this summer.

When we were preparing to move in to this space in 2013, we created the motto “Connect. Act. Evolve.” We have made so many extraordinary connections here these past five years. We’ve taken action together, though there is always more to do. Now, it is time for our organization to evolve.

We recently made an exciting announcement: in addition to our 40+ years of serving as a humanist chaplaincy for the Harvard University community, we now serve MIT in a similar, even expanded role. As the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and MIT and a new “Convener” at MIT, I and we will have wonderful opportunities in the coming years to convene conversations on how humanism can help shape young leaders in ethics and technology. As a non-profit organization, we plan to take advantage of this critical moment by expanding our role at both Harvard and MIT starting this fall (despite the fact that neither university pays us any money: only individual supporters like you can do so!).

As part of these plans to expand our work on campus(es), however, we will be restructuring our public offerings for non-students, taking an extended summer break and then re-launching with some significant new ways of engaging the general public, starting this fall. Non-students who have been attending on a weekly basis or more will see a drop in the overall number of Humanist Hub programs (and opportunities for volunteer leadership); those who follow our work from afar or enjoy attending occasionally, however, can expect a significant upgrade next year in the ways in which we are able to interact with, and hopefully educate and inspire you! There will be a number of announcements in the coming weeks and months: watch this space.

Meanwhile, it is my honor to invite you to join us this Sunday, May 20 for our final official Humanist Hub Sunday Program at 30 JFK Street. As our final formal speaker at this location (and until September), I’ve chosen the topic, “On Loving a Complicated Family.” (1:30-3:00pm, 30 JFK Street). In the midst of change, which can be exciting but also confusing and frightening, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which humanism is about family. Humanists and allies believe, in light of evolution, that all of humanity and indeed all life on this planet is one interconnected family. Of course this macro-level family, like many of our micro-level families, is often far from what we wish it could be. And even more so when it comes to building communities to bridge the gap between family and the wider world.

How can we love and appreciate what it means to be human beings, connected to other human beings in such complicated ways, all across this enormous yet tiny planet? I can’t promise all the answers in one Sunday talk, but I am eager to celebrate with you by recalling many of the greatest insights explored during our five years and 1000+ programs here in these 3200 square feet of leased commercial real estate in Harvard Square.

We’d love to see you at this special celebration also featuring the Humanist Hub staff, lots of music from our wonderful Music Director Antje Duvekot, food from Mike’s Pastry, Otto, and more.

Evolution is always the end of what has come before; it is also the beginning of new opportunities and possibilities. With some sadness for the amazing memories we leave behind us in this space, we look forward with enormous gratitude to continuing to evolve together.

P.S. With the Humanist Hub making some big changes over the summer, the newly formed Transition Team plans to keep the community informed of the progress of those changes through the Hub’s newsletter. The Transition Team can be contacted at

Humanist Hub Director to Serve Tech Leaders of Tomorrow

I am delighted to announce that the Humanist Hub has accepted a wonderful invitation to expand our work on campus. Having worked as the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University since 2005, when I succeeded my friend and mentor Tom Ferrick, I now serve as the Humanist Chaplain at both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to joining MIT as its first humanist chaplain, I am particularly excited to to have also been appointed as a “Convener” by MIT’s Office of Religious Life. This new role, held by a handful of the approximately 30 chaplains to serve the Institute, will empower our organization to convene public conversations on many of the most pressing issues facing the broader MIT community. I and we have been invited into these roles by The Reverend Kirstin Boswell-Ford, who was appointed last summer as MIT’s new Chaplain to the Institute and Director of Religious Life. I consider Reverend Boswell-Ford to be a true visionary leader: someone with impeccable religious credentials and an extraordinary commitment to interfaith leadership, who fully and deeply understands how to include humanists, atheists and the nonreligious. We will be very fortunate to work with her and with the entire MIT Division of Student Life.

Over the past several months, as events leading to today’s announcement have developed, I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on just what kinds of conversations a humanist chaplaincy and community ought to convene. Inspired by conversations with many of our community members, and particularly by our wise and passionate Humanist Hub staff, I feel motivated to catalyze an ongoing dialogue on humanistic ethics in science, technology, business and society.

Kumail Nanjiani, star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “The Big Sick,” and an atheist, recently spoke out about the frightening lack of ethics in (the real life) Silicon Valley culture:


“As a cast member on a show about tech, our job entails visiting tech companies/conferences, etc. We meet people eager to show off new tech…Often we’ll see tech that is scary. I don’t mean weapons, etc. I mean altering video, tech that violates privacy, stuff with obvious ethical issues…we’ll bring up our concerns to them. We are realizing that ZERO consideration seems to be given to the ethical implications of tech…”

The connections between Nanjiani’s concern and shocking recent current events are obvious. Wikileaks, Cambridge Analytica, cultural biases embedded in artificial intelligence, nuclear tests, and weapons manufacturing may only be the tip of an all-too-quickly melting iceberg.  And, with the war on science at the US federal level, it has never been more important for the good people of the STEM world to speak truth to power.

The more I talk with students and faculty at both MIT and Harvard, the more I realize humanism has something profound to offer in this decisive moment. We are all, equally, citizens of this pale blue dot. We have only this one life, between birth and death, to seek meaning and define our legacy. We must not accept the institutions of the past as adequate when we know we are so far from the justice we can envision together. Our ability to reason and think critically is our greatest tool for understanding and shaping the world for good. And we are only human: imperfect, vulnerable creatures who must continually learn to love ourselves and one another if we are to make the extraordinary improbability that is human life joyful, just, and sustainable.

We must ensure that the brightest young minds continually discuss, debate, and expand on ideas like these, as they learn the skills that will shape our world. And I’ve found the MIT community to be extraordinarily receptive to doing so. That is why Sarah, Rick, Nina and I, along with the Humanist Hub board, advisors, and so many of our community leaders, are thrilled by the possibility today represents to work with an institution that shares the mission of bettering the world for all.

As can and should happen in times of possibility and promise, some of the details of this next phase of our work are still coming together.  We look forward to finding the way forward with our expanded community.

Of course, this new beginning will bring challenges – perhaps the biggest challenge for us is that we have to continue and increase our fundraising efforts to be effective in this expanded role. As well known blogger Hemant (The Friendly Atheist) Mehta points out, neither Harvard nor MIT have been or will be paying us any money to support our work – not even towards my salary or benefits. While we might wish these universities compensated chaplains differently (or, indeed, at all), our financial independence is precisely what ensures our intellectual freedom advance a vibrant, uncompromising vision for humanism. If we are to make a meaningful difference in the lives and future of MIT students, we can only do so because of donations from supporters like you. Please make a generous one-time or recurring donation, today!

For more information, please visit the Humanist Hub website. We’ve posted a new FAQ, and our press release. You can also see my revised bio, which says a bit more about some of the issues that are most grabbing my attention these days. We’ll be posting additional updates and articles about this story as they are available — look for them first at the Humanist Hub’s Facebook & Twitter accounts, and/or on mine.


November Town Hall Notes (11/12/17)

Humanist Hub Town Hall 11/12/17

Greg Epstein, board member Jennifer Ibrahim, and Hub Ambassador Veronica Lane answered questions from attendees.

Meeting notes taken by Elka Kuhlman and Andrea Kimbriel.

Update on fundraising efforts from Greg:

– The Humanist Hub has changed in last 2 years or so – now has stronger sense of community participation
– Easy to raise large grants from major donors when working on a small project donors identify with, but as the Hub transitions to more of a community organization, those donors may want to “pass the baton” to members of the community. That’s a challenge for the organization.
– Most of Greg’s larger fundraising efforts have been tied to his book, which was published 8 years ago. Time constraints have thus far prevented the publication of a second book that might be used for this style of fundraising.
– He has chosen not to take a salary for a year to make sure we made it through the 5-year lease financially intact. He plans to write himself a check for 30% of yearly salary and not take the rest of his salary.
– This discussion is how we can be a more financially sustainable community. Liberal churches worldwide are struggling more than evangelical churches. Greg thinks a reason is liberal churches provide a nice community for good people but aren’t growing, while evangelical churches are motivated to spread their mission.
– The campaign that initially raised money for the current space was mission-driven, and we need more of that sort of vision. Large grants are potentially still available for mission-driven goals that advance the humanist mission.

– Veronica shared about our first phone-a-thon attempt at fundraising occurred on Saturday. The group came up with scripts for voice mail and chatting, did some phone calls, and got an idea of how to train people.


Question: What missions are grant-worthy?

Greg and others:

– Examples of this type of mission include advancing idea of Humanists as equal participants in society, advocating on economic issues or climate change, conducting a secular equivalent of Pre-Cana (marriage prep) for the community, the Values in Action committee that is being revived in January. [These are examples of this type of mission, not necessarily things the Hub will do.]

– Grants are easier to access for a concrete program. The trick is what exactly the funds would support. For example, a grant might be received to fund a particular employee’s salary. That could ease the financial burden until an organization was able to fully fund the salary.

Question: Some financial information was shared with members who were not staff – can you speak to privacy concerns and what steps be taken in future?


– Although we have put a lot of time and thought into the best way to share data to allow us to take initial steps to fundraise, we need to adopt a protocol that clearly states how we will and won’t share data.  We are looking to community members with expertise in this area for guidance.
– Have not shared with any outside organizations.
– We are looking for help from the community to create legal documentation and nondisclosure agreements for future information sharing.

Question: Can you provide an update on the current fundraising?

– At the beginning of this fundraising effort in September, the Hub had a goal of $10,000 per month of regular giving from sustaining members giving $40, growth members giving $100, or those giving some other amount on a regular basis.
– In September, the monthly income was about $2,000; it is now about $3,500 to $4,000.
– The $10,000 goal was selected because it is roughly the amount of the rent and liability insurance for the current space. It would mean the community could sustain this or a similar lease without worrying about less predictable larger donations.
– It’s not clear whether staying in this location is the best choice even if that goal is reached, as the lease would be for a 5-year term.
– Greg also believes that if we reach that goal in a reasonable amount of time, i.e., in this academic year, it will be a major achievement that may inspire larger donors to contribute.
– There is currently a donor willing to match 30 monthly donations of $20 per month.
– Many nonprofits make half their yearly income between November and the end of the year, so this goal may still be possible for us.
– The plan is to seek donations from regular or semi-regular attendees who haven’t yet committed to regular giving; local people who attend infrequently but see the Hub as a symbol of their values; Harvard alumni who appreciate the Hub’s service to the Harvard community over a number of years; those around the country/world who want to support humanism.
– Greg has been in touch with potential large donors.
– Also has case statements, a social media campaign plan, etc., but staff time is maxed out and members are needed to volunteer for these efforts.

– Statements from members from the Hub were shared with possible large donors. Those profiles did help raise several thousand dollars and may raise more. Also, there’s potential for others to share their profiles in this way. Additional ideas are welcome.

Question: A lot of us feel like this is an extremely important space to us. Is there more that could be done to use it? For example, could empty offices be rented during the day, etc.?


– Hub has made a number of efforts to find tenants. Only a few have been successful. In some cases, aspects of the space have been too limiting for potential tenants.
– Dr. Erik Gregory is a tenant, and that has been very successful. There has been discussion of having other therapists or other nonprofit or for-profit tenants and that may occur in the future, but man potential tenants want to know if the Hub will be in the same space for the next few years.  

Question: The language of “sponsorship” for sustaining membership may come across as patronizing. We should be careful how we approach this in the future.  

– Greg would appreciate detailed feedback to help think more deeply about both our intention and language.

– She has heard similar concerns, and they do have some ideas about how to change the language.

Question: What plans exist to expand this type of community elsewhere in the country? If we take the responsibility to do that, it will strengthen the community and give it a sense of purpose.

-The idea that this community could be a model was a huge and decisive factor in raising money for this space. However, it is more challenging than expected to try to create a national model. We keep learning and growing around this goal. Doing a national campaign would be difficult at this time but the hope is to revisit it sometime in the future.

Question: As Greg is the Harvard chaplain, there are restrictions on advertising and proselytizing, and our bylaws are those of the Harvard chaplaincy and don’t mention the Hub. Is the Hub a separate and distinct entity and how does that affect Greg’s role in the Hub?

– There is one legal organization, the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard Inc., incorporated in the 1990s, and it derives its tax exempt status as a chapter of the American Humanist Association.
– Due to the relationship with Harvard, the community is not allowed to try to persuade those with a different religious affiliation to change to the Hub’s, but that does not preclude the community from doing things like the nationwide “Good without God” campaign held several years ago.

Question: What is our historical narrative? That may be something that’s missing from the conversation.

-A great comment. The Hub didn’t have succinct mission statement when he joined. He wrote one in his early years as Harvard humanist chaplain. When the Hub moved into this space, a new one was created “Connect, Act, Evolve,” and even more recently this one has been created, but there is more work to be done.
– “Our mission is to be an inclusive community of atheists, agnostics and allies creating a new model for how humanists celebrate life, promote reason and compassion, and better the world for all.”

Question: Is there a financial plan based on the $10,000 goal, and is there a fallback plan if that goal is not met.

– Plans are not yet concrete.
– We have not yet programed the spring semester, in part to allow time in December and January to discuss what the Hub will and won’t be able to do. Also, perhaps more member-led talks will be held early in the year.
– Worst case scenario, we’re here through the end of August, so we want to use the space creatively and effectively through then, but what does that look like? We should continue the things we do best – Sunday programs and other key programs during the week – in one way or the other.
– The majority of regulars seem to be giving meaningful financial gifts, and that has increased in the past few weeks, but that means that “the rest of the way home” is going to have to come from those who are not currently regulars here.

– If we can’t reach this goal, we’re talking about significant restructuring – maintaining staff, but perhaps moving to a shared space. There are a lot of contingencies.

– We will be following up more effectively in the future with those who say they want to donate and/or become a member.

Question: Why don’t we have a fundraising committee of members, especially since staff is pushed to its limits and board only meets quarterly?

– In the past it has been difficult to form committees because the organization is small. The board is small and divvying up work has been an issue, but there are two new active members and the board is actively discussing this.
– No one on the board has the attitude that members should be excluded from this sort of committee, and the board would love to hear proposals.

– The time now seems to be ripe for “lay leadership.” She just formed a successful leadership committee, which helps coach and supervise her internship. She’s also working with members on a project to celebrate holidays in a humanist way.

– Can’t speak for the board (he’s a nonvoting member), but perhaps the board would be interested in taking on the responsibility of approving new member-led committees such as this that could help administrate the work of the Hub.
– There’s a distinction between community-driven programs (which the Hub Ambassadors currently approve) and administrative committees.  

Question: What’s the criteria for board member selection?

– There’s an approximately 2-page description of expectations for board members, and those are being increasingly applied and observed.
– This is a strategic board; there is also a separate advisory board.
– Board members have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization; therefore the organization has to be very careful about who is on the board. Additionally, the board members are Greg’s bosses, so he wants to be sure they are consistent and reliable.
– The board of directors elects its members.

Question: When will the next update on fundraising be offered?

– He expects there to be a serious discussion of fundraising efforts before the end of the year, and also at the beginning of the new year, when big decisions will probably be made.

Question: How can we get more in-house control of the website?

Veronica and others:
– The website has been managed in-house in the past, but challenges include inconsistencies when several people are responsible for updating it and the need for a reliable person who has quick response time.
– We can add content but can’t quickly change the theme. It might be possible to select a few people who could be in charge of those sorts of updates.

Question: The Hub Ambassadors submitted a list of questions about the fundraising efforts in preparation for this town hall. Could we get answers to those questions posted?

– Yes, he or a board member have drafted answers to those questions and will finalize and post them.


Meeting notes will be posted on Facebook, the Humanist Hub website, and included in the weekly newsletter.

To learn more about helping with fundraising efforts, volunteering, or with additional questions, email

Stop Trying to Find Yourself

Wenmiao (Confucius Temple), Nanshi district. Bradley Mayhew, Lonely Planet, Getty Images

The quest to “find oneself” is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous.

Confucius would have been a phenomenal southern lady. It’s said that he could walk into a room, sense where there was tension, and with a spritz of social joviality—a certain poem, a certain tone of voice, a well-timed question or a tasteful joke—could get the room flowing as smoothly as butter on a warm biscuit. He was an expert socialite. A regular Amanda Wingfield. Or at least that’s the impression one might get from Michael Puett’s account.

Michael Puett, the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard, is the university’s most popular professor. He came to the Humanist Hub as a speaker in continuing series on the future of humanism. His agenda though was not to talk about Confucius’s adeptness for hosting parties in antebellum Alabama, but about why the quest to “find oneself” is at best misguided, and at worst dangerous.

Puett paraphrases ancient Chinese philosophy as well as some modern psychology in saying that we grow up socialized as simply reactive creatures: children that respond to the anger, joy, sourness, sadness, or anything around us. As we grow older, we begin to solidify patterns of action based on whoever we grew up around. If someone gets angry, we may meet them at their anger or rush around trying to appease them. If someone is happy, we may toss ourselves under the bus to keep them happy.

If we ever truly find and become “ourselves,” Puett claims, what we become is a mass of conditioned impulses, blindly accumulated over a lifetime of external conditioning. The prescription offered by Puett is not to find ourselves but overcome ourselves. How we do that is not by being free individuals flying on impulse, but quite the contrary, by submitting ourselves to ritual.

[Ritual is] a counterintuitive and even off-putting notion to Humanists

It’s a counterintuitive and even off-putting notion to Humanists who often value self-determination, individuality and freedom from outmoded traditions—ritual among them. But Puett says that ancient Chinese philosophers saw too much autonomy as a trap and ritual as a tool of transcending blind impulses that have become part of our “selves.”

To do what feels natural would often just be a continuation of what we already do. Consider that certain friend of yours who repeats the same relationship again and again with variations on the same partner. Or the same thanksgiving fiasco that happens every year. The same shallow breakfast banter repeated week to week, morning after morning, giving you no deeper insight into the people sitting with you across the kitchen table. “How are you?” “Fine.” (I’m about to lose my job. I can’t sleep.) “And what about you?” “Oh, I’m doing well.” (I haven’t spoken to my sister in years. I may have cancer.)

The most important ritual Puett says we should cultivate is in fact a kind of meta-ritual: to consistently break existing rituals and routines. Ask the person how they are in a slightly different tone, watch what happens. Tilt your head, change your facial expression, watch what happens. Ritualistically tweak your routines and try to see if you can uncover the fear beneath the anger, the anxiety beneath the cool, and in so doing come to see them as more fully human, and in turn cultivating “humaneness.”

We may begin to find that the stories of those around us go deeper than we thought

Recently, Nina Lytton the Hub’s new student minister, told a personal story of precisely this sort of routine-tweaking. She was on a nightmarish 30-hour road trip to see the eclipse with long-time friends of hers. Two of the friends in question were a long-time couple, and tensions were high, sniping constant, and the one man in the car (named ‘Dick’ for purposes of the story) was not conversing so much as firing off commands, point blank.

After many hours of aggravated driving, Nina made a slight, Confucius-like change to the conversation. She began talking in I-statements to express her preferences and ideas—something she’d picked up from the Hub’s Monday night discussion groups. Soon, another woman in the car caught on. Then the third. And by the end of the trip, even the man stopped dishing out orders and began to express his own feelings and preferences and made a modest effort at asking others for theirs.

A small change to the routine, a big difference on the 15-hour car ride back.

Ritualistic breaking of routine such as this, practiced consistently over many years, may well make us into nimble socialites like Confucius. But more importantly, we may begin to find that the stories of those around us go deeper than we thought, that their inner lives are richer than we’d ever suspected, that—in short—the are more human than they’d been before. And that we, by the same measure, are more humane.

If you enjoyed this, please forward to friends, post on Facebook, Twitter, or social media of choice, to help give Humanist perspectives and ideas greater voice in society.
Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.

The Meaning of Human Existence

Image courtesy of the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

“After many close calls, extraordinary suffering … we staggered onto the stage to the grief of most of the rest of life.”

Last Sunday the Humanist HUB had to turn people away. And for good reason. The center was at capacity with people eagerly awaiting the afternoon’s speaker: famed evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. Winner of two Pulitzers and ‘personal hero’ to at least a couple HUB members, Wilson has been dubbed “Darwin II” by writer Tom Wolfe, is the man who coined the terms “biodiversity” and “biogeography,” and is considered the world’s leading authority on ants.

The title of the talk, “The Meaning of Human Existence,” was almost as much of a hook as the name of speaker. No one particularly expected Wilson to answer that question—which would have been tantamount to answering, once and for all, what algebraic “x” really was. Instead, the focus of the talk was on something related, and of similar importance. Namely: why do we, the altruistic, cooperative, enlightened homo sapiens, seem to be so royally “fu[dg]ing” up the Earth?

The appearance of homo sapiens, according to Wilson, runs something like this: “After many close calls, extraordinary suffering, [and nearly reaching extinction on the African savannah], we staggered onto the stage to the grief of most of the rest of life.”

Since then, one Promethean achievement after another has brought us basic machines, mathematics, AC and DC currents, Fords, PCs, iPhones, increasing our power and our numbers. But while our computers run ever more advanced operating systems, Wilson says we continue to run on “Paleolithic emotions” while our society runs on “medieval institutions.” And although we like to think of ourselves as the dominant species on the planet, Wilson makes the argument that if we count “dominance” in terms of numbers, global biomass, and our odds of survival as a species, ants may have us beat.

Our dominance on Earth, and maybe even our mere survival, may depend less on our technological achievements than on whether altruism of selfishness wins out in our species.

Altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection.

Wilson argues, as Darwin himself first proposed, that altruism is not God-given but a development of natural selection. There are various examples—upwards of twenty different evolutionary lines, says Wilson—of biological altruism that have been identified in the natural world, defined by an organism acting to the benefit of other organisms at a cost to itself.

Examples include vampire bats who regurgitate blood so those bats who failed to feed that night won’t starve; ‘helper’ birds that will aid in raising the young of other mating pairs; Vervet monkeys that will raise alarm calls when predators approach, even though they attract attention to themselves; and social insects like ants that rely on countless sterile workers who sacrifice their lives and reproductive potential for the survival of the colony.

Among evolutionary biologists, the idea that altruistic tendencies are derived by natural selection is not controversial. But exactly how biological altruism developed is a subject of ongoing debate.* Wilson’s stance on the issue, put simply, is that altruism develops when there are different groups within a species—different tribes for example—that are in competition with one another. If there are selfish individuals within a group, even a single selfish member, then the selfish members will always win out over the altruists. However, groups of altruists will theoretically always out-perform groups of selfish individuals because altruism insures the group as a whole is more likely to survive.

However, whether biological altruism can be extrapolated as a direct cause of human altruism is still a subject of debate. For one thing, biological altruism and what’s commonly meant by human altruism are not identical, since the latter requires conscious intent and the former does not. Furthermore, human behavior—more than any other animal’s—depends on culture, which is itself environmentally dependent. We’ve managed to spread across the globe, surviving in drastically different climates and on vastly different diets, not by rapidly evolving our anatomy (our genetic differences are superficial) but by endlessly adapting our culture. Humanity’s specific brand of altruism may be a unique product of cultural evolution.

By and large our altruism does resemble that of other animals. For example, we are far more altruistic towards our kin then towards strangers. And like birds, humans will help raise others’ young, or even adopt children who have no biological ties to themselves. But human altruism doesn’t always fall neatly in accordance to patterns of biological altruism. For example, humans often collaborate with and even give their lives for non-genetically related families and even “other tribes.” Stranger still: we act altruistically for the sake of other, non-symbiotic species.

But given our unique altruistic capacities why does it seem we’ve become so bad for the Earth? Why, as Wilson asked, are we screwing things up?

Let’s admit it: we’re not exactly a blessing, but we’re also not a plague.

It’s tempting to fall into existential guilt or think of ourselves as some kind of perverse aberration inherently destructive to life on planet Earth. But we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves. As answer for our behavior seems to lie in the very basic mechanisms of life.

We have been raised by Earth’s own code of conduct. Like other creatures, what’s first and foremost on our minds is an old and basic formula: survive and reproduce. Food and shelter, sex and kids. Much of what we and other animals do are focused on these basics ends and we strive for them as best we can.

Consider the rabbit or the starling. These species are not inherently evil, but when they’re placed in ecosystems with no natural predators and seemingly limitless resources, they do what life does best: consume and reproduce, ad infinitum, to the detriment—and sometimes extinction—of plants and animals around them. As a species we have come to a similar sort of place.

Let’s admit it: we’re not exactly a blessing, but we’re also not a plague. We’re a decidedly mixed bag. Our cultural adaptability has allowed us to stumble into, survive in, and disrupt ecosystems the world over, but somehow we’ve also developed the capacity for one of the highest form of altruistic action: altruism towards other species. Once in a while a person like Wilson comes along to remind us just how strange, how tribal, how animal, how stomach-driven, sex-driven, and Paleolithically myopic we are. But at the same time—by simply existing at all—people like Wilson also manage to make a case for precisely the contrary.

*For those who want to enter into the fray see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on biological altruism.


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Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.
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The Thousand Year Floods

Hurricane Harvey captured from the International Space Station, Courtesy of NASA

Circa 8 CE Ovid wrote about an ancient flood the gods of Olympus unleashed upon the earth, leaving only the pious couple Deucalion and Pyrrha looking over the side of their small boat to see fields and villages underwater—dolphins brushing the trees.

A pre-colonial Aztec myth says that during the era of the fourth sun, a devout couple hid in the hollowed trunk of a large tree with two ears of corn as divine storms drown the wicked of the land.

About 2000 BCE it’s said the Great Flood of Gun-Yu inundated large parts of China. According to myth, it continued for at least two generations causing people to leave their homes to live on the high hills and mounts or nest on the trees.

Great floods have been part of the human mythos of human apocalyptic destruction and punishment for millennia. Today, they are just as relevant to the human narrative as ever.

On August 25th, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas.

Two members of the Humanist HUB, Dan Richards and Jesse Wallace, are from Texas and have friends and family there. Dan’s parents weathered the storm in Galveston, TX while his cousins were in West Houston. Jesse’s extended family, spread out from Corpus Christi to Baton Rouge, had their homes flooded, their cars totaled. Watching it all happen from 1600 miles away, both men wanted desperately to be of use.

A “wild flash” hit Dan. He had a strong impulse to get in his car, race down to Texas, pick up an inflatable dinghy on the way, and start riding around the waterways of Houston trying to save people. But in the end he stopped himself.

“I wanted to help,” says Dan, “But I didn’t want to center myself. … Taking my ego out of it was my number one priority.”

He had no rescue training, he reflected, no equipment or experience. If he had gone and gotten himself hurt or stranded, someone would have to come out and get him. Or worse, in an attempt to help an injured or stranded person he could potentially cause them harm for lack of medical or rescue training, simply aggravating the problem.

Instead, both Dan and Jesse stuck to their phones and tried to coordinate flow of information over social media. Dan showed me an S.O.S. he saw on Facebook about a group of nine adults, two children, six toddlers, two infants, three cats, and three dogs stranded in a house on the brink of flooding. 911 was not responding to their distress calls. He forwarded the message to a high school friend who, after losing his home, was riding around with his brother picking up stranded. He could only hope they’d be able to reach the stranded.

The civilian response was overwhelming, and combined with social media channels, people picked up the slack where governmental rescue agencies were over-extended. The Cajun Navy, an ad-hoc volunteer group of private boaters from Louisiana formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, arrived to Texas en masse. There were guys who rolled through the flood waters in their monster trucks. Groups of citizens who made chains of people to get to those who were stranded in floodwaters.

If he was there, Jesse reflected, he probably would have been with his uncle in a boat pulling people out of houses. But from afar, he focused on the next step after immediately surviving the flood: helping people survive the next month.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Jesse did volunteer electrical work in New Orleans and from his experience knew that it wasn’t middle-class people like his family that would need most financial support but people with fewer resources. He donated installments to several GoFundMe campaigns aimed at helping specific families below his socioeconomic status weather the upcoming months as well as to low-income school districts whose supplies had been completely flushed away.

As Humanists, we don’t have a God or divine hierarchy to look up at and pray to. Dan saw a lot of people posting, “Thoughts and prayers,” on social media during the hurricane. “I don’t see that as misguided,” he says. “There’s some utility in prayer.” He feels it focuses people on the task that needs doing. If we were silent, what use is that?

Jesse saw the same flurry of reflexive thanks-to-God messages after they’d been rescued. “No!” Jesse says. They shouldn’t be thanking God. “Thank the [guy] who just gave you the help and recognize his humanity is amazing.”

Jesse recounted a different kind of “rescue” story about a friend living in Houston, hated by his neighbors for being a Black Lives Matter activist. During the storm, both he and his family and the family of a neighborhood man who hung a Confederate flag on his truck were huddled together in the same shelter for some 40 hours. The conservative man thought BLM was a terrorist organization, or at least a hate group bent on assaulting white people. A conversation began between the two men.

After the clouds passed, the BLM activist and the conservative man worked side-by-side to help others in the neighborhood get their houses back together. Last Jesse heard, a kind of friendship seems to have formed between him and some of his staunchly conservative neighbors.

“I find it a bit ironic how impressive humanity can be and not even know it. … I just wish it didn’t take a catastrophe [to bring it out of people.]”

This is the first time in recorded history that two Atlantic category 4 hurricanes have made landfall in a single year. And the 33 trillion gallons of water Harvey dumped on the U.S. “This is something that hasn’t happened in our modern era of observations [about 100 years]” said University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Dr. Shane Hubbard speaking to the Washington Post.

The future may potentially bring the biggest flooding the human race has ever seen. It won’t just last two generations as the Great Flood of Gun-Yu purportedly did, it may last far, far longer.

The old flood myths often represented a cleansing of wickedness from the world. A time when humanity had gone a wrong way and needed to be radically, violently redirected. The great floods of the future—just like those of the past—will also be a consequence of human “wickedness,” so to speak. The difference is that we won’t see them as God-sent but human-made. And our redemption too will not be divine but gruelingly, honestly, heroically Humanistic.

Daniel Lev Shkolnik – writer, thinker, Humanist.

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